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David Dyer's astonishing novel The Midnight Watch is based on the true story of the SS Californian, the ship that saw the Titanic's distress rockets and yet, unfathomably, did nothing. A psychological thriller.
Sometimes the smallest of human failings can lead to the greatest of disasters
On a wretchedly cold night in the North Atlantic, a steamer stopped in an icefield sees the glow of another ship on the horizon. Just after midnight the first of eight distress rockets is fired. Why did the Californian look on while the Titanic sank?
As soon as Boston American reporter John Steadman lays eyes on the man who stood the midnight watch on the Californian, he knows there's another story lurking behind the official one. Herbert Stone must have seen something, and yet his ship did nothing while the calamity took place. Now Stone, under his captain's orders, must carry his secret in silence, while Steadman is determined to find it out.
So begins a strange dance around the truth by these three men. Haunted by the fifteen hundred who went to their deaths in those icy waters, and by the loss of his own baby son years earlier, Steadman must either find redemption in the Titanic's tragedy or lose himself.
Based on true events, The Midnight Watch is at once a heart-stopping mystery and a deeply knowing novel – about the frailty of men, the strength of women, the capriciousness of fate and the price of loyalty.
Caroline Baum's Review
There was a fierce bidding war for this debut - which might seem strange, given that it tells a well-worn story about the sinking of the Titanic - except that it does so from an altogether fresh perspective. This is the story of The Californian, the ship that saw the distress signals from the luxury steamer and what her crew did next, after the second officer on the midnight watch told the captain what he had seen.
Dyer is a seaman himself, and his knowledge of the protocols of seafaring are well handled in the narrative which hinges on crucial information about distress signals, distances and chains of command. Wisely, he gives the story to a Boston journalist to tell, rather than to a sailor, which ensures the plot's momentum and investigative urgency. A rich and satisfying tale hinging on the eternal questions of loyalty and duty.
About the Author
David Dyer grew up in a coastal town in NSW, Australia, and graduated as dux of his high school in 1984. After commencing a degree in medicine and surgery at the University of Sydney, he soon decided it was not for him.
David went on to train as a ship's officer at the Australian Maritime College, travelling Australia and the world in a wide range of merchant ships. He graduated from the college with distinction and was awarded a number of prizes, including the Company of Master Mariners Award for highest overall achievement in the course. He then returned to the University of Sydney to complete a combined degree in Arts and Law. David was awarded the Frank Albert Prize for first place in Music I, High Distinctions in all English courses and First Class Honours in Law. From the mid-1990s until early 2000s David worked as a litigation lawyer in Sydney, and then in London at a legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic's owners back in 1912. In 2002 David returned to Australia and obtained a Diploma in Education from the University of New England, and commenced teaching English at Kambala, a school for girls in Sydney's eastern suburbs.
David has had a life-long obsession with the Titanic and has become an expert on the subject. In 2009 he was awarded a Commonwealth Government scholarship to write The Midnight Watch as part of a Doctorate in Creative Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney. The doctorate was conferred in November 2013. David's research for The Midnight Watch took him to many and varied places around the world including libraries and sites of interest in New York, Boston, London and Liverpool.
'I spent days reading Lord's papers in the archive of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, the highlight of which was my finding of the original letters of the Californian's second officer and apprentice, written within days of the disaster, in which they describe the rocket-firing ship they saw. Tears came to my eyes as I held these flimsy letters in my white-gloved hands. 'I observed a white flash apparently on her deck,' writes the apprentice, 'followed by a faint streak towards the sky which then burst into white stars…'' These rockets were, of course, a desperate cry for help.
Amazing insights into why people might do what they do.
Interesting & readable lesser know Titanic story.
Definitely a page turner and very interesting lesser known story of the sinking of the Titanic. A good read.
This is a terrific read and a different spin on the Titanic disaster. The characters are well developed and you understand them implicitly. I have heard that the book gets a little repetitive and it does lose its way at times, but it fires back with gusto. The author has an obvious passion for the Titanic disaster and it shows in his writing and research. This is a terrific read and I ad trouble putting it down.
Food for thought
Written by an Ozzie - hooray!. A great side to the Titanic legend that has been overlooked or not realised until 100+ years after the event. And that is the 'survivor guilt' some of those people involved in the disaster and rescue must have suffered for years afterwards. Just as many soldiers of the first war must have kept their harrowing stories to themselves and suffered consequently, those men involved on the "Californian" surely carried a long pain with them for years.
NSW NORTH COAST
I was hooked at page 1 and continued through to the end of the book at page 322, which I read in one sitting...could not put it down...the characters are completely engaging. When reading, you could believe that this is exactly what actually happened!
Palm Beach QLD
Recommended by a former Merchant Navy Officer.
As my first ship was launched in 1911 the book brought back many memories. Its description of life on an old cargo ship is very accurate and lifelike.
Why The Californian Stayed Away
A story that captivated me as a child, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, such an enormous tragedy, caused my young mind to concentrate on a single word, the interrogative adverb, why? To me, as a four or five year old, the loss of so many people at one time seemed incomprehensible. There was no way I could perceive so many people in one place, so I assume my intrigue had to do with the huge number. Even today, seventy years on, the same question remains, especially as it relates to the mysterious, skulking SS Californian.
David Dyer, in his new book, The Midnight Watch, a novel of the Titanic and the Californian, has researched the background and woven a likely answer around his findings. This is a work based on many years' research, driven by a nautical mind that could not understand why the master of the nearby Californian failed to respond to Titanic's desperate cry for help, the distress rockets fired from her deck as she sank.
Under maritime regulations of the time, Titanic set off on her maiden voyage with the minimum number of lifeboats then mandated, far too few for the number of personnel she carried. As she sank, many would perish, most dying of hypothermia rather than drowning.
On Sunday night, 14th April 1912, the Californian steamed into an ice field. With every chance she might incur damage to her plates or her propeller her skipper, Stanley Lord, decided to maintain steam but to stop engines and allow her to drift on the calm sea until daylight. He told the second officer, Herbert Stone, when he came on duty, his midnight watch would be an easy one.
Shortly earlier, White Star Line's pride and joy Titanic had hit an iceberg at high speed on her maiden voyage to New York and was taking on water. A modern design and believed unsinkable, she was in fact doing just that, sinking. As she settled by the bow, eight white distress rockets were fired, in series, in a desperate plea to all ships, especially one that was perhaps no more than ten miles distant.
The rockets were seen by Stone as officer of the watch on board Californian; another who witnessed the event was Assistant Donkeyman Ernest Gill, on deck smoking at the time. Stone is shown as a weak character who delayed advising his captain lest he disturb him. Lord is resting below decks on a settee in the chartroom. As captain, he expects more of his second officer, wanting him to be more decisive in his role. When Stone does report the rockets to his captain, Lord questions whether they are, in fact, signals of distress.
This is the nub of David Dyer's work. Although the story of Titanic's loss is well understood, I must leave it to those who read the book to decide whether the Californian's lack of action was a matter of languor, delusion or, in the words of one character, "...(not) hubris after all, but dramatic cowardice?"
Fictitious journalist, John Steadman, writes the story. The Boston American, an actual newspaper of the day employs him as a lead journalist: It was the paper that broke the news of the Californian's lack of response by reporting, in full, an affidavit sworn by Assistant Donkeyman, Ernest Gill. Gill, from observation, is the one person prepared to confirm to the world that senior officers had seen the rockets and advised Captain Lord they had been fired.
We are taken through pertinent aspects of the US Senate Inquiry headed by the irascible Senator Smith and the British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry under Lord Mersey. Through all of it, Steadman searches for the shuttle that will draw warp and weft together and create a complete fabric. He finally manages this by writing of John and Annie Sage and their nine children, third class passengers on their way to a new life in America.
The Midnight Watch is beautifully written, an essential ingredient for historic novels. As Dyer says, it is "... a work of fiction based on true events ...the result of careful research and represents my best guess as to what actually happened during the Californian's voyage and afterwards."
The interrogative adverb I mentioned remains, although the stridency of its original volume is lessened greatly by Dyer's thesis. Great reading.
The Midnight Watch
Herbert Stone walked back to the ship's rail and looked again towards the south. The three icebergs had drifted astern but he could still see them, stately and tall and brilliantly lit. But he knew not all icebergs were like this. Some were low and grey, and tonight there would be no moon. He wondered how, during the dark hours of the midnight watch, he would able to see them.
The SS Californian was an ordinary ship, but that's what Stone liked most about her. The glamorous new liners of White Star or Cunard were not for him; this modest vessel was good enough. She was middle-aged, middle-sized, and carried commonplace cargoes. Sometimes she also carried passengers – in nineteen old-style, oak-panelled staterooms – but there had been no bookings for this trip. Instead she had loaded in London textiles, chemicals, machine parts, clothing and general goods, and waiting for her in Boston were a hundred thousand bushels of wheat and corn, a thousand bales of cotton, fifteen hundred tons of Santo Domingo sugar, and other assorted cargoes.
Stone had learned during his training that ships could be spiteful, dangerous things. They could part a mooring rope so that its broken end whoop-whooped through the air like a giant scythe, or take a man's arm off by dragging him into a winch drum, or break his back by sending him sprawling down a cargo hold. But the Californian had done none of these. She was gentle and benign. She had four strong steel masts, and a single slender funnel that glowed salmon-pink and glossy black when the sun shone on it. She rode easy in the Atlantic swells, found her way through the thickest fogs, and her derricks never dropped their cargoes. She was a vessel at ease with herself – unpretentious, steady and solid.
Stone was proud to be her second officer and each day he tried to serve his ship as best he could. He was responsible for ensuring the navigation charts were correct and up to date, and had charge of the twelve-till-four watch. From midday until four o'clock in the afternoon, and from midnight until four o'clock in the morning, he stood watch on the bridge and had sole charge of the ship's navigation and safety. The twelve-till-four shift at night was properly called the middle watch, but Stone's first captain used to call it the midnight watch and Stone had thought of it as such ever since. He liked the name: it gave a touch of warmth and magic to those four dark hours when the captain and crew slept below and he alone kept them secure.
The midnight watch required vigilance, so he tried always to get some good sleep beforehand. While other officers might visit the saloon after dinner to play cards with the off-duty engineers, or even have a shot of whisky, Stone would retire to his cabin. By eight o'clock he'd be in bed reading, and by nine he would be asleep. That gave him almost three hours' sleep before his watch began.
But on this cold Sunday night, halfway between London and Boston, he found himself still awake at nine-thirty. He was thinking about the icebergs he'd seen. The lively bounce and throb of his bunk beneath him told him that the ship was still steaming at full speed. He thought the captain might have slowed down as darkness fell, given there was ice about, and he was worried they might keep up full speed for the whole night. Stone pictured the men crowded into cramped living quarters low in the ship's bow – the bosun, the carpenter, the able-bodied seamen, the greasers, trimmers, firemen and donkeymen – lying in their bunks with less than half an inch of steel between their sleeping heads and the black Atlantic hissing past outside.
He flicked on his reading light and took up his book again – Moby-Dick, a gift from his mother. The novel soothed him. He thought no more about icebergs but instead imagined Starbuck aloft, scanning the horizon, handsome in his excellent-fitting skin, radiant with courage and much loved by a noble captain.
ISBN: 9781926428727 ISBN-10: 1926428722 Audience:
Number Of Pages: 336 Published: 1st March 2016 Publisher: Penguin Books Australia Country of Publication: AU Dimensions (cm): 23.2 x 15.4
Weight (kg): 23.2
Edition Number: 1